Published on September 12th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant
Interview: William B. Davis
For almost a decade, my Sunday nights were a ritual of television, as my friends and I would get together to end the week by tuning into The Simpsons (as an appetizer), followed by The X-Files (the main course). I remember watching the credits at the start of each episode; when you read the name William B. Davis, you knew it was going to be an episode that featured the nefarious Cigarette Smoking Man. What started as a bit part in the pilot episode turned into one of the most iconic villains in pop culture history. Mr. Davis was cool enough to chat with The Feedback Society to discuss The X-Files and his recent memoir, the best way to play a villain, and his craft of acting.*
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: In your book [Where there’s Smoke…The Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man] you talk about ‘generational differences’ on the set of the X-Files. How did having a more professionally trained set of standards affect your experience with younger ‘Hollywood’ actors like David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson?
WILLIAM B. DAVIS: I don’t know if they were generational differences or geographical differences but I was raised in British theatre traditions of civility, cordiality, and punctuality. For all their good qualities none of these three adjectives would apply well to David and Gillian.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: Were you surprised at any of the reaction, good or bad, to your memoir?
WILLIAM B. DAVIS: The reaction to the memoir has been terrific — even winning a prestigious award. I can’t say I was surprised even by some who felt I had been too candid. They may be right. But one has to write what one feels.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: Did you truly see The Cigarette Smoking Man [CSM] as a villain? Or did you try to play him more as a guy with his own motivations? Don’t you think this usually makes villains stronger?
WILLIAM B. DAVIS: I don’t think an actor should ever play a villain as a villain. Unless it’s melodrama. After all, villains don’t think they are villains. They think they are doing what is best, or what just needs to be done. And that was how I approached CSM. I used to do convention talks where I tried to persuade the fans that CSM is the hero of the show and Mulder the villain.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: Hahaha, I could go with that theory. On a similar note, The CSM wasn’t a ‘heavy’ in a physical sense — how did you imbibe him with qualities that made him intense and intimidating?
WILLIAM B. DAVIS: I had quite a bit of help, especially from the director of photography. He always placed and lit me in a menacing framework. Chris Carter’s vision of the character’s silence and menacing observation also helped. After that it is a matter of what am I thinking about?
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: Do you still tend to embrace what the CSM character has brought to your life, or do you feel pigeon-holed sometimes in that “I Am Not Spock” sort of way?
WILLIAM B. DAVIS: Generally, the experience has all been good. I have been brought by the show and my role in it to a lot of different places, from more science fiction roles to skeptical conferences. But I have not really been ‘typed’ and I get to play many other types of characters.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: What is the hard part about giving a nuanced performance on a TV show?
WILLIAM B. DAVIS: [I] have done a number of TV movies that are challenging, as they are so often written for plot rather than character, and with clumsy exposition. But as always, what the actor has to do is find a reason, however bizarre, for why he has to say what he says.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: If you could act alongside any actor, living or dead, from the last 50 years, who would it be, and why?
WILLIAM B. DAVIS: Strangely, it would be Ed Harris. Years ago I worked as a rehearsal actor for a film called Needful Things. The spark he brought to the interaction between us just in our little rehearsal was so fresh and spontaneous. I would love to see where that might go in some real work.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: What piece of work have you done that you’re proud of, aside from The X-Files, that fans should seek out?
WILLIAM B. DAVIS: I am proud now of the work I am doing on the current show, Continuum. And there is my memoir. Fans might like the audio version of the memoir which I narrate. [Available at Audible.com]
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: Do you find that people are threatened or surprised by how different you are in real life, as opposed to The CSM? I’m especially talking about your work with The Canadian Cancer Society, and even more so, your lectures on skepticism.
WILLIAM B. DAVIS: People used to be surprised by how different I am from the character of CSM. Maybe the most surprised was a female fan who met me in London three years ago. And married me!
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: What is the main message of your lecture on skepticism? Why do you think it’s important to be skeptical?
WILLIAM B DAVIS: Skepticism is another way of saying we need evidence, often through the scientific method, to support cherished beliefs. Humans are very intelligent but often use that intelligence to defend bad ideas that they arrived at emotionally. How do we tease the truth from the misplaced? One of the most serious of these issues now is climate change. All the scientific evidence points to a desperately dangerous situation which our politicians here and in the US choose to discount despite the evidence.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: What is the one question you HATE being asked?
WILLIAM B. DAVIS: [“What is your strangest fan moment?”] would fit into that category along with, “what is the funniest thing that ever happened on set?”
* Parts of this interview first appeared in Punch SuperZine